SAN FRANCISCO
03/12/2013 04:03 pm ET Updated Mar 13, 2013

Sequestration Special Education Cuts May Put Disabled Californians At Risk

SAN FRANCISCO -- Manal Al-Thayer's daughter Sara's ability to do even basic things was severely limited when she first started special education classes in kindergarten.

"She couldn't walk or crawl. She learned that from the school's therapy classes," Al-Thayer told The Huffington Post. "She couldn't even chew or swallow her own food. They taught her how to chew and swallow."

Sara, now 10 and attending Castlemont Elementary School in San Jose, Calif., was born with disabilities that left her legally blind and with very weak motor skills. Thrice weekly occupational therapy sessions have given her the ability to walk with a cane and tentatively read Braille.

But as federal budget sequestration threatens to cut more than $62 million from California's budget for special education, some of the programs that have done so much to improve Sara's life may soon be in jeopardy.

"It's scary for me to think about what would happen if the funding for these programs were to be cut," said Al-Thayer. "In my country [Jordan], children with disabilities just stay home until they die. Here they have a chance.

"If there are no services like this, what will we do?" Al-Thayer continued. "Parents don't have the ability to teach this on their own."

The potential impact the sequester will have on the daily lives of the more than 36,000 K-12 students with disabilities in California show how the across-the-board budget cuts can have harrowing implications for millions in the U.S. It also reveals how government agencies, like individual school districts, increasingly face hard choices making the cuts with the least damage.

An analysis by the National Education Association, the largest U.S. teacher labor union, predicts that the $67 million cut in federal funding for California's special education programs will result in 671 lost jobs. "There's no way at that level of cuts that children will not be affected," NEA government relations director Mary Kusler told HuffPost. "From our perspective, that's the greatest danger."

Since they were first implemented in the mid-1970s, American special education programs have always been chronically underfunded, Kusler said. When Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act in 1990, the federal government estimated that it cost about twice as much to educate a student with disabilities than one without and pledged to pay for about 40 percent of the added cost. The government actually contributes about 16 percent and the sequester will cut that to 11 percent, Kusler said.

Schools nevertheless must provide essential services for each student detailed in a document called an individualized learning plan that takes into account the disability and the services of teachers, parents, therapists and school administrators. Since schools are legally bound by such plans, eliminating Sara's occupational therapy sessions would likely be out of the question. That doesn't mean they can't be scaled back, however.

Even before the sequester cuts, providing for a student like Sara can be difficult for California schools. Decades of state budget shortfalls means the easy cuts have already been made.

Despite years of learning Braille, Sara still has difficulty because her sense of touch is also weak. She began making progress using a special tablet that connects to a computer and uses touch and voice commands to display words. But because the equipment is restricted by limited funds, Sara is prohibited from taking the tool home at the end of the day.

"It's difficult," Al-Thayer sighed. "I just want my daughter to be independent."

The sequester cuts to special education are bound to reverberate through the entire state public education system. "Because these programs are federally mandated, the state has to find the money for them somehow," said California Teachers Association spokesman Mike Myslinski.

San Francisco Unified School District, for example, will make up the difference by dipping into its general fund, used for everything from arts programs to transportation.

"SFUSD wouldn't cut services to students with disabilities, even if the federal funding is cut," school district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. "This would have to mean an increase in the district's general fund contribution to these programs ... which has the potential to further erode the district's fund balance."

Campbell Union School District, of which Sara's school is a member, is waiting to get more specificity from the Department of Education about exactly what how its funding is going to be reduced before deciding how best to cope with the cuts.

In the meantime, Al-Thayer refuses to give up hope.

"If I ever have money, I’ll make a school for the blind where [people like Sara] won’t have to feel different," she said. "There are lots of people looking for bright futures for their kids. We don’t need cuts, we need more money."

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